Valve-backed Xi3 mini PC unveiled – is this the Steam Box, or just the first of many?

Xi3 Piston - the first sighting of Steam Box?

PC maker Xi3 has announced a mini PC optimised for Steam’s HDTV-friendly Big Picture mode – and Valve has made an undisclosed investment in the company too. Is this, then, the first sighting of Steam Box, Valve’s long-rumoured play for the living room? Or just the first of many?

The system, unveiled at CES in Las Vegas, is still in development, and the initial announcement was light on detail. Xi3 confirmed in a press release that its mini PC had been “designed specifically to support both Steam and its Big Picture mode for residential and LAN party computer gaming on larger high-def screens.” CEO Jason A Sullivan played up the possibilities of a system that would “provide access to thousands of gaming titles through an integrated system that exceeds the capabilities of leading game consoles, but can fit in the palm of your hand.”

But that was that. No price, specs or release date, and an insistence there would be no further comment on either the system or the size of the investment. So far, so Valve.

Xi3 does, however, have an early prototype of the mini PC, codenamed Piston, on show at CES, and CMO David Politis let a few details slip to Polygon. Despite its slender dimensions, the system will be modular, with up to a terabyte of storage available and buyers able to upgrade components including CPU and RAM.

The company says the Valve-backed PC will be based on its “performance level” mini PC, X7A, which retails for $999. A slimmed-down version, dubbed X5A, retails for $499 – and runs on Linux, which Valve has been increasingly focused on in recent times, something many attribute to founder Gabe Newell’s vocal dislike for Windows 8 but is in fact more likely explained by it being open source.

Is this it, then? The Steam console we’ve been waiting for? At this point it seems more likely that this is simply one of many: when Newell first signalled Valve’s intent to move into hardware he admitted he would prefer it if hardware manufacturers did the hard work.

“If we have to sell hardware we will,” he told Penny Arcade last February. “We have no reason to believe we’re any good at it, it’s more we think we need to continue to have innovation and if the only way to get these kinds of projects started is by us going and developing and selling the hardware directly then that’s what we’ll do… We’d rather hardware people that are good at manufacturing and distributing hardware do that.”

Valve has been recruiting for hardware engineers for some time, too, and has patented controller designs, but it’s a small company. Half a dozen people run Team Fortress 2; barely double that manage the gargantuan Steam. It may have the desire to make its own hardware, but it may also lack the means – so investments like this make sense. It saves Valve from committing outright to one specification or design; it spreads the risk of what is, for a software company, a very risky move.

There may eventually be one true Steam Box; there may not. Newell’s comments in December, when he explicitly confirmed that hardware was in the works at Valve, remain delightfully ambiguous. The plural of hardware, after all, is hardware. Maybe Newell’s plan all along was for a licenseable Big Picture on Linux, something that could be stuck on boxes of all specs and sizes, a sort of Valve seal of quality, an endorsement lending immediate credibility to any system that signs up for it. One thing’s for sure: 2013 is barely a week old and it’s already very, very interesting indeed.

Image credit: Polygon

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